Thursday, March 22, 2012

Look what is going on: brand conscious auctions

This week, two large scale art auctions took place in Seoul. Seoul Auction and K Auction, the country’s leading auction houses, offered similar bodies of works, relying too heavily on abstract pieces from the late 20th century. The price estimates clearly indicated preference for the instantly recognizable Lee Ufan’s nearly empty canvases and Kim Tschang-yeul’s water drops, but the pieces failed to cause excitement on either occasion.

K Auction showed 16 pieces by Lee on Wednesday, which to an extent bored the participants. Most were sold on the first bid at around the lowest estimate, while five of them did not attract any interest. The selection even included the world renowned artist and philosopher’s small pencil and paper pieces for around 7 million won. The evening routinely flew through pieces by local household names like Lee Joong-seop, Chung Sang-hwa and Kim Whan-ki.

The calm was broken unexpectedly by Bernar Venet’s steel sculpture “Ligne Indeterminee.” The spiral structure sparked a cut-throat competition between two bidders calling from overseas and sold at 58 million won, more than three times the highest estimate of 17 million. The French artist’s production was part of 34 sculptural works specially organized for this spring auction. Usually local auctions only include three to four sculptures.

The overall monotonous flow was not so different from the night before. Seoul Auction achieved 77 percent sales of 124 works showcased Tuesday. The highlight was Park Soo-keun’s “Women on Roadside.” The oil on hardboard piece from 1962 brought the highest price of 620 million won after enthusiastic bidding. This is the first time in three years that his work has stirred the auction scene. In 2007, Park’s “A Wash Place” was bought for 4.52 billion won, setting the highest record in Korean auction history. His other piece “Mother and Son, Two Women” brought 500 million won.

The rest of the line-up was too familiar - Lee Ufan, Lee Kang-so, Ko Young-hoon, Kim Whanki and Park Seo-bo. Most found buyers without contest. Kim’s gouache on paper “A Flying Bird” sold significantly below the lowest estimate.

The event in Pyeonchang-dong, northern Seoul, was publicity at work. The fiercest competition was over Yoo Young-kuk’s oil painting titled “Work” that made the cover of the auction catalogue. Showing simplified images of mountain ranges, this geometric piece sold at 360 million won.

All four pieces that the Korea Deposit Insurance Corporation (KDIC) confiscated from the Busan Savings Bank were sold. The agency, which oversees the returning of savings to depositors, appointed Seoul Auction to sell artworks owned by the lender that had its business operations suspended in February 2011. On April 1, 10 more pieces from the financial institution will be put up for sale at Hong Kong Auction.

Works of tragedy

Bluntly put, tragedy sells in the art world. At K Auction, heart wrenching works of troubled artists surfaced such as Lee Joong-seop’s letter to his wife that was sold at 105 million won. To say the master, famous for paintings of bulls, (one piece sold at 3.56 billion won at Seoul Auction in 2010, making it the second most expensive sale) had a tumultuous life is an understatement.

Born to a rich family, he participated in the Korean War painting battle scenes; it eventually led his family to move to Jeju Island. Due to abject poverty (he lived on charity and drew on cigarette box wrappers, which the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired), his Japanese wife Yamamoto Masako (later given the Korean name, Lee Nam-duk) and two sons returned to Japan in 1952.

Lee suffered from schizophrenia, malnutrition and acute hepatitis, and died alone at the Seoul Red Cross Hospital in 1956 — he never reunited with his beloved. The prose, accompanied by drawings of a happy family, sounds like a spell on himself; “I, Lee Joong-seop, will make Nam-duk a beautiful angel of happiness and comfort. I am confident as ever, and I will continue to seek new and great expressions for my family and good people around me.”

Wednesday’s star piece was a creation of an illness, Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Stars” (1995). This 5-by-3 meter canvas filled with white dots and gray lines was once owned by the Robert Miller Gallery in New York. It was bought for 1.2 billion won, the low end of the estimate, in a single bid. The Japanese artist is best known for her polka dot pieces that are results of her obsessive compulsive disorder. The 82-year-old suffers from hallucinations where specific patterns of dots and flowers would cover her surroundings. She moved to the United States after the Japanese art scene shunned her work due to her mental condition. Kusama turned the images that haunted her into groundbreaking artwork and represented Japan in the 1993 Venice Biennale. She is collaborating with French fashion house Louis Vuitton on a limited edition of leather goods, ready-to-wear items, jewelry, shoes and watches which will be launched in July. Smaller pieces of hers were sold at both auctions this week.

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